Jul 242017
 

One of the stark realities of the technology industry is there is no third place – if you aren’t the biggest or second biggest in a mature market then you need to get out.

With internet businesses it’s now appearing there may not even be room for second placed businesses as increasingly each market segment is dominated by one player.

For Silicon Valley’s leaders, having a monopoly is their nirvana. As PayPal founder Peter Thiel once wrote, competition is for losers, which is ironic given his fortune is based upon challenging the banking and payment oligopolies.

So with attitudes like Thiel’s, and the massive power of companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google, it’s not surprising there are now calls to break up the tech giants.

There are some compelling arguments for this, the splitting of Bell Labs in the 1950s spawned the birth of Silicon Valley and the breaking up of AT&T created the conditions for development of the internet and mobile network. Monopolies stifle genuine innovation.

For customers, the argument is moot. Very rarely does a monopoly result in anything but poorer service and higher prices.

Even for shareholders, there’s a good argument for breaking up monopolies. A company with massive market power is often over staffed and poorly managed and the splitting of Standard Oil in the 1911 gave rise to dozens of new oil companies who returned far more to investors than the staid giant ever would.

It’s hard though to see how companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon could be broken up. Unlike telephone networks, oil refineries and gas stations it’s difficult to separate assets or products. Breaking up Google, for example, may only result in more monopolies over smaller markets.

However in the tech industry, a monopoly may not be permanent thing. Forty years ago IBM was the untouchable incumbent and twenty years ago it was Microsoft. Both today are shadows of what they once were as markets overtook them.

So perhaps it’s too early to call for the breaking up of today’s tech giants because, like Microsoft and IBM, their success is based on a fleeting technological moment.

May 262017
 
Waiting for other people to help our business

“These three brands have one thing in common – they’ve all been destroyed by digital disruption,” says one business commentator in a recent presentation.

He cited three names; Kodak, Nokia and Blockbuster.

It’s a nice, and often repeated meme, which is only really true of Blockbuster which failed to adapt to a changing market and could be a perfect example of a transition effect although some don’t buy the digital disruption reason for the company’s demise.

Giving lie to the idea the company was a victim of Netflix’s rise, a former Blockbuster executive puts the chain’s bankruptcy down to management not understanding the company’s role in the market, and that it was in decline long before the streaming service’s arrival.

A more fundamental problem with the statement is both Nokia and Kodak are still in business too, the latter having come out Chapter 11 financial in late 2013.

Finland’s Nokia is somewhat more complex than Kodak or Blockbuster, having been founded as a paper pulp mill in 1865.

The company became a global brand thanks to being a leader in mobile phones prior to the iPhone disrupting the market but the name faded as the Apple and a new breed of East Asian manufacturers came to dominate the market.

Despite fading as a consumer brand, the company is still a major player in telecommunications – being a major supplier of cellular base stations – along with a range of other technologies.

Both Kodak and Nokia are still very much alive, albeit no longer being recognised by the average consumer.

There are major lessons from both companies for those studying the effects of technological disruption on brands and businesses. Even Blockbuster’s mistakes in the face of a changing and declining market has many lessons.

Citing them as examples of ‘digital extinction’ though is untrue and almost certainly unhelpful in understanding what management can do to respond to new technology or societal shifts.

May 252017
 

“The future isn’t pre-determined, technology doesn’t come from some outside force. It’s created by us. Some people have more power than others in that system, such as the big tech entrepreneurs, but at the end it’s people and organisations that have the power.”

Nicholas Davis, the World Economic Forum’s Head of Society and Innovation, was discussing at the recent Sydney CeBIT conference how we can take control of the digital economy and where workers fit into an increasingly automated world.

Technology and online platforms aren’t neutral system, Davis observes. “It’s not just about how we use them, but the values that are designed into the systems, technology is not just a neutral thing. During a conversation like this if I put my iPhone between us, it’s proven that reduces our memory of that discussion and our sense of connection.”

Politics and addiction

“The purpose of the technology, the design of it, affects us in different ways.” Davis says, “if we design technologies for addiction, if we design business models that involve us being sucked into systems at the expense of other things in our lives, then that is a value choice that companies make and that we as users are trading off in our lives.”

“In understanding that technology is not neutral then the question is how we, as revolutionaries have that political discussion? I don’t mean political like ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ but these are value decisions that we need to engage with.”

“The difficulties about having discussions about technology is not getting sucked into a left-right divide and letting one group of people own innovation, but to say what do we want, How do we get there and how do we avoid the mistakes of previous industrial revolutions where the environment suffered, kids suffered and vulnerable populations suffered.”

A change in thinking

“One of the biggest problems is we don’t have regulatory or even democratic institutions where we can make collective decisions about technologies,” says Davis.

“The average AI researcher, at the top of their game anywhere in the world, would only understand a small percentage of the AI space. So how do you expect a politician or a voter, to come to grips with it.”

One of the key discussions missing in the public sphere is around automation and concepts like the Universal Basic Income, Davis believes. “We should have a serious chat about giving everyone the space to build up their skills.”

In the development policy, Davis sees growing inequality and applying last century’s thinking to today’s challenges as among the biggest risks facing governments and communities.

Rippling beyond business

For business, the imperative is to recognise the effects of decisions on the wider community.

“The big thing for business is understanding the technology decisions you make have a ripple effect beyond your company, you need to look forward to new ways of value adding.”

Davis warns we are seeing a backlash against innovation and technology with concerns about privacy and security growing.

“So much of the world is build on their use of data. Most companies and organisations don’t have good data hygiene or ontology to classify their information. People say data is their greatest assets – some say it’s the new oil – but it’s also their greatest liability. So understanding information security at the board level is critical.”

The power of individuals

For individuals, Davis believes the power lies with us in the choices we make as consumers.

“Don’t underestimate your own power, but also don’t underestimate that more and more products around us are designed to influence our behaviour in ways we need to be aware of.”

“In most cases, if the product is free then you and your data are the product, understand that and on what terms is important.”

Conscious choices

“Understand the externalities of these services as well. Appreciate the effects it has on your family, your mental health, on the ability to connect is important. Being able to make conscious choices about these things.”

“Supporting open data standards and competition – not just accepting Android or Apple for instance – rather than allowing politicians and big business to fight over these things.”

So in Davis’ view being an ‘industrial revolutionary’ in the digital era is a matter of being an informed, and empowered, consumer. Will that be enough?

May 122017
 

An interview with Media scholar Jonathan Taplin, author of the new book Move Fast and Break Things, on the Pro-Market website poses some interesting questions about the direction of the digital economy and innovation as market power coalesces around the big four internet giants. 

This power is particularly marked in online media with Facebook and Google pocketing most of the global advertising spend which leaves little for content creators.

I kept coming back to these three—Google, Facebook, and Amazon. All have extraordinary market shares. Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising and an 80-plus percent market share in Android. Amazon has a 74 percent market share in e-books, and Facebook controls 70-plus percent of mobile social media when you add Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. What more empirical evidence does one need to prove concentration?

Over the past decade we’ve seen the power of the big four online gatekeepers growing although ironically Apple’s light seems to be dimming as the company’s innovative vision fades following Steve Jobs’ passing.

The monopoly problem is broader than just the tech industry though, as The Atlantic pointed out last year, market dominating corporations are suppressing innovation throughout the US. The problem is even greater in Australia and some other countries.

The rise of the monopolies shouldn’t be a surprise as the neo-liberal policies of the United States and most of the western world for the last 40 years have been largely focused on increasing the wealth and power of corporations and their managers. It’s fair to say those policies have been successful.

Where we go next is the big question. An economy dominated, and suffocated, by a handful of well connected and powerful corporations is not going to drive wealth creation, particularly in a world where more businesses functions are being automated.

One short term step may be to break up the monopolies, something that Taplin himself suggests.

This just goes to show how quickly the ground is shifting. I now have a piece coming out in the New York Times that explores the idea of breaking them up, but when writing the book, I tried to be reasonable. I thought no one would buy the idea of breaking them up. And now people are raising that idea.

While that’s a start there’s vastly more that needs to be done from bankruptcy reform – the last 40 years have seen governments make it harder for small businesses and households to seek financial protection – through to intellectual property reform.

Generational change may turn out to be the solution though as the lucky generation of business and government leaders – those born between 1935 and 55 – responsible for the ideology and policy that allowed such an accumulation of corporate power move on.

Apr 212017
 

Every tech boom has its excesses and it’s hard to go past the Juicero as the most egregious of today’s mania.

A number of high profile investors, including Google’s venture capital arm, have poured $120 million dollars into the internet connected device that squeezes juice from pre-prepared pouches of pulped fruit and vegetables.

Bloomberg found the devices don’t a great deal as the juice can be squeezed out of the packs by hand, which is just as well given the microchipped pulp containers can be disabled by the manufacturer.

While the Juicero aims to be the juicer equivalent of the Keurig coffee capsule, the device’s expense, built in obsolescence and unnecessary waste is emblematic of everything  that’s wrong with the current Silicon Valley culture.

The fundamental question of any business idea is ‘what problem does this solve?’ It’s hard to think of anything the Juicero fixes.

Apr 202017
 

It’s been another big year for Xero after the company passed its million user milestone, at the recent AWS Summit in Sydney founder Rod Drury to spoke to Decoding the New Economy about what’s next for the company and for small businesses.

For a company founded a decade ago, having a million paying customers is a substantial milestone and one Drury seems quite bemused by.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet. When we did our IPO our promise was a hundred customers and I can remember when it was our first year our target was twelve hundred customers – I think we got to 1300 – so to pass a million is pretty nuts.

“What we’ve found is the accounting software market is probably one of the key industries where you’ll see the benefits of machine learning and AI. The reason for that is massive amounts of data but a pretty tight and structured taxonomy so we processed 1.2 trillion pieces of data in the last 12 months so the graph of data is huge.”

Far more modest volumes of data threaten to overwhelm smaller businesses and this is where Drury sees Artificial Intelligence and machine learning as essential for simplifying services and driving user adoption.

“One of the challenges is that small businesses might be great landscape gardeners or plumbers but they are terrible at actually coding transactions so we’re now seeing that wisdom of the crowd and all that data that we can code better than most normal people can. So the big epiphany was ‘why don’t we get rid of coding?’

“Effectively all a small business has to do make sure things like the data of the invoice is in the system and we can do the accounting for them and the accountants can check and see what’s going on.”

This automation of basic accounting tasks, and how these features are now embedded in cloud computing offerings, is changing how businesses – particularly software companies – are operating.

“You can’t run domestic platforms any more, because every accountant will have customers that are exporting and what we’re seeing now is global platforms connecting together so, for example, HSBC announced its bank feeds and what we’re doing with Stripe and Square.

All of the accountants need to be coaching the small businesses exporting. That’s what creates jobs.”

That global focus of business is now changing companies grow, particularly those from smaller or remote economies like Australia and New Zealand.

“What we’re finding now is the last generation of the late 90s and early 2000s was very much enterprise technology and normally companies would get to a certain point and then a US public company would have to buy them.

“Now we’re seeing truly global businesses that aren’t selling out quickly they’re actually creating businesses from this part of the world. People don’t have to live in Silicon Valley anymore, they can live in Sydney’s Northern Beaches or Auckland or Wellington and do world class work.

That remoteness is something that challenges Xero though as the company tries to get traction in the US market which is dominated by Intuit and fragmented across regional and industry lines.

“As you start off as a company listed in Australia and New Zealand it’s harder as you don’t get the benefit of the density in a smaller market. Now we’ve done enough to get these bank deals, we can now attract executives of the calibre that feels like long term leadership and that’s the benefit of doing the hard yards for a few years.

We’re past the beach head phase now and now we’re building the long term business. We want to be a big fish in a small pond.”

Overall Drury sees the cloud, particularly Amazon Web Services, as being one of the great liberators for business as smaller companies follow Xero’s footsteps.

“This is one of the amazing things AWS have done, they’ve created this flat global playing field.”

Mar 302017
 

Thinking about design and getting to market should be a priority for startup businesses says Murray Hunter, founder of Sydney’s Design + Industry.

Having won over 160 design awards during 30 years of running Design + Industry and employing 50 specialist designers and engineers in his Sydney and Melbourne offices, Murray has many insights in what makes a successful product.

“Some of those companies have gone on to become world leaders, it’s a hell of ride and it’s a fabulous relationship where 15 or 20 years later you have a client relationship that’s dominating the world.” he recalls.

Thinking like designers

The current startup scene in Australia provides an opportunity for the country, Murray believes.

“We’re losing manufacturing industry but there’s a whole new wave of businesses and startups based around new technologies, particularly around IoT”

Cyclone pruning shears

“The world wants to think like designers and lead by innovation, which is a really interesting line. You have the American government that wants to design think and you have all these large accounting firms that want to be design thinkers as well.”

“But everyone wants to be innovative and provide a better experience to the customer and we have all these new technologies that are giving us the ability to have a lot more information, be more informative.”

“It started with Apple with the iPod and then the iPhone and it’s led right through so we now have high expectations of what we want for products and services.”

Finding funding

His advice to startups is blunt, “the first thing you need is funding, If you don’t, start the process of development sufficient to develop collateral which enables you to gain investors.”

The development process itself starts with knowing the market.

“Products should be designed to suit the market, not on a hunch,” he says. “So you start with what the market wants and you go backwards. You don’t get dressed and say ‘where are we going’, you find out where you’re going and then get dressed.”

“The intelligent and qualified entrepreneur will have a lot of the problems solved, they’ll have done research, they’ll have knowledge of the market, they’ll know the segments it’s aimed at and quite often they’ll have route to market realised.”

BlueAnt Pump HD earbuds

“Crowdfunding makes a big difference as entrepreneurs can run a crowdfunding campaign, get initial sales and worldwide recognition for it. If it isn’t successful, that could be the end of it. Others know people who can fund it.”

“They may not have funding or they may, we have quite a few suppliers around us who will help with the funding process. We also know private individuals with deep pockets who are interested in investing.”

Changing the design industry

Over the past few years, the design industry has changed dramatically with the rise of Computer Aided Design, 3D printing along with new materials and manufacturing methods. Medical devices are one area that’s seen a rapid change.

“Thirty years ago medical products were low volume,” Murray recalls. “In Australia typically we’d make them out of sheet metal. Now the volumes have increased because the world is more easily accessed so we’re designing for higher volumes.”

CliniCloud non contact thermometer

“We’ve also got low cost manufacturing sources to provide solutions so we can develop a more sophisticated product that will be better received worldwide.

“The biggest change I think has been CAD (Computer Aided Design), the Internet and 3D printing.”

“CAD because we went from 2D drawing to 3D models, the internet because we no longer send DVDs or CAD files to our manufacturing partners and it means we can access manufacturers all over the world.”

“We’re working on a 3D printer that can make biomatter, in other words skin, there’s talk of doing teeth with the rigid externals and soft nerves. So where we go I can only think of organs, prosthetics, replacing cartilage which is a big thing for the elderly.”